Promising Genre Winner

It might be something of a Hot Take to say so, but I overall really enjoyed Soderbergh’s stripped-down, intimate Oscars broadcast – especially considering the context of this year. The general complaint in the weeks leading up to the 93rd Academy Awards was that none of the movies nominated matter/exist to most people, so it was kinda sweet to see an intimate, personalized broadcast pitched directly at the niche audience already in the know.  I don’t think the streamlined, de-glitzed format would work as well in a year where people gather in groups for Oscar parties, but I had a nice pizza-on-the-couch night myself.  Still, I can’t say I was especially invested in any of the night’s Big Wins, at least not as a casual movie nerd.  My two least favorite films that I caught up with before the Oscars—Nomadland and Another Round—won major prizes; my two very favorite films nominated—Emma. and Pinocchio—were ignored even as technical achievements; and a lot of the awards in-between went to expensive-to-access 2021 releases that I have not yet seen: The Father and Minari.  I was surprised, then, that the award that most excited me this year was the Best Original Screenplay win for Promising Young Woman, a film I only liked just Okay.

I remember listening to an interview with the executive producer of Horror Noire, Tananarive Due, a few years ago (on the now-defunct Shock Waves podcast) about the Black cinema documentary’s then-upcoming release.  Due explained that the doc was greenlit the very next morning after Jordan Peele won his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Get Out (Peele was a producer and interview subject involved in the production of Horror Noire).  Then she & the Blumhouse reps in the room alluded to several other black-led genre projects in the works that got launched at that same time, ones Peele was not involved in whatsoever.  That interview has stuck with me over the past few years as the noticeable uptick of mainstream Black horror films & TV shows have made their way into wide distribution, making it so that it’s almost already time for a Horror Noire sequel.  Some of those projects have been great; some have been godawful.  All of them directly benefited from the prestige of a Get Out Oscar win, no matter what you may think about the pageantry of Entertainment Industry Awards shows.  That’s why it’s important to root for artists you like getting Oscars attention for work you appreciate, even if most of the other statues are handed out to movies you don’t care about at all.

I don’t believe Promising Young Woman is as successful or as Important of a film as Get Out by any stretch.  To be honest, I can’t say I had a particularly strong reaction to it at all, either positive or negative.  For such a deliberate Provocation—a bitterly funny rape revenge thriller with a music video pop art aesthetic—it’s a relatively timid film, deliberately withholding the shocking violence of its genre’s inherent trauma and catharsis.  Pretty much everything I admired about it was tackled so much more fiercely & directly in films like Revenge, Felt, and Teeth, except this time with a poisoned candy coating that distinguishes it more as a stylistic flex than as a thematic discomfort.  To its credit, the movie appears to be self-aware in the ways it’s sidestepping the trappings of its genre, like in the way it teases bloodshed to reveal only a leaking jelly donut, or in how it exclusively casts comedic actors as its Nice Guy villains.  My personal favorite detail in that respect is the traditional Monster Movie music that hits every time Carrie Mulligan reveals herself to be stone-sober to the men taking advantage of her “drunken” state, as if there’s nothing scarier to a date rapist than a woman’s clear-eyed sobriety.  I don’t believe Promising Young Woman overhauled or subverted the themes or content of the rape revenge thriller in any substantial way, but it’s at least playing with the form, which is all we usually ask of genre filmmakers.

While I’m not emphatically in love with Promising Young Woman as a film, I am totally invested in its significance as an Oscar-winner.  Any time an over-stylized genre movie wins a major Academy Award—Get Out, Parasite, The Shape of Water, even Joker—I find myself celebrating the win no matter how in love I am with the movie itself outside that context.  Even if I find the movie itself to be just passably Okay, I’m stoked that a hyper-femme, button-pushing genre film decorated with rainbow-pastel nail polish and Britney Spears & Paris Hilton music cues won a major Academy Award this year.  That means that more, better funded genre movies tuned to my sensibilities are on their way.  Hell, even Jordan Peele outdid himself after his Get Out win with the much wilder, more daringly surreal creep-out Us, so Promising Young Woman‘s win might even mean that writer-director Emerald Fennell’s next film will totally bowl me over the way I wanted Promising Young Woman to.  Regardless, her win is a win for hyper-femme, discomforting genre filmmaking in general as a viable business, and that’s the victory I’m choosing to champion the loudest this Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Never Let Me Go (2010)

The recent critical success of Annihilation (to say nothing about the film’s financial doom at the hands of its distributor) has been a welcome opportunity to look back to Alex Garland’s career-long achievements as a sci-fi screenwriter before he made the jump to buzzworthy auteur in his debut feature as a director, Ex Machina. A significant part of that reexamination has been tied to a rumor, recently confirmed by actor Karl Urban, that Garland was the uncredited director of the sci-fi action thriller Dredd. I very much enjoy Dredd as a slick, bare-bones slice of schlocky spectacle, but it’s not quite of the same cloth as what I enjoyed so much in Annihilation & Ex Machina. To me, Garland’s personal brand of sci-fi is one of heady, introspective melancholy. His films might feature Domhnall Gleeson seducing a sexy robot or Natalie Portman firing bullets at a monstrous alligator-beast, but they’re still works built on the backs of sci-fi ideas, as opposed to sci-fi spectacle. To that point, I’d suggest that the undersung work of Garland’s past is not Dredd at all, but rather the sci-fi melodrama Never Let Me Go. Adapted from a widely adored novel by Nobel prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also penned Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is a romantic period drama set in an alternate timeline version of the 1970s (and later stretching to the 1990s). It details a decades-long love triangle melodrama between three doomed characters, recalling more the historical romantic epic ambitions of a film like Atonement rather than the shoot-em-up spectacle of Dredd. It’s not an especially fresh, attention-grabbing work. There’s no space travel, ray guns, or alternate dimensions. Instead, it dwells on the glum, moody repercussions a sci-fi dystopia wreaks on the emotional state of the characters who live it, which makes the film feel right at home with Garland’s more recent, more revered directorial efforts.

I was intrigued by the trailer for Never Let Me Go when I saw it nearly a decade ago, but also confused why the advertising made its central twist so obvious. As it turns out, it’s because the main conceit is not a twist at all, but a premise that’s stated up front and seen to its logical, emotional conclusion. A breakthrough discovery in the alternate history 1950s raised the live expectancy rate of the average citizen well past the 100-year mark: clones. Clones are systemically raised as part of an organ-farming program. Donations are involuntary, required without exception, and donors are raised to understand what fate awaits them as their purpose in life reaches “completion” (hint: they don’t get to enjoy the extended life expectancy rate the new technology affords the rest of the world). Our window into this scenario is a traditional British boarding school that only appears sinister at the margins. Cloned children are taught that it’s their special duty to keep themselves “healthy inside.” Chip readers, daily pills, and mysterious art contests hint at the administration behind their care, but we never peak behind the proverbial curtain. Instead, we watch them mimic social behaviors form music & television, find enormous pleasure in the thrift store castoffs of regular children, and search blindly for clues to the identity of the “originals” they were cloned from in any scraps of the outside would they can gather. From this grim backdrop emerges a decades-long tale of unrequited love & romantic jealousy among three of the boarding school student as they age out of the safety of childhood education and into active, repetitive organ donations. Some attention is paid to the mysteries behind the administrative structure of their preparation as donors, but the story is much more concerned with the emotional repercussion of an unfulfilled romantic life of people who were “born” to die young. It’s a small, intimate story told within the context of a massively ambitious sci-fi premise, so it’s no wonder Garland was drawn to telling it onscreen (he was also reportedly chummy with Ishiguro on a social basis, which helps I’m sure).

I can’t kick myself too much for missing Never Let Me Go in its initial theatrical run. Practically nobody saw this thing. It earned $9 million on a $15 million budget, only $2 million of which was domestic box office. The real shame there is that I believe the film could have been a huge hit if it had arrived just a few years later. Its romantic strife amidst a grim dystopia would have been right at home with the YA craze that followed The Hunger Games in 2012. Then there’s the cache of the film’s cast, which only gets more impressive every passing year: Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Domhnall Gleeson, and so on. With Garland’s recent critical success, Never Let Me Go now has a unique context as a primer for his auteurist voice, but it’s honestly baffling that the film has yet to become a hot topic before, whether initially or upon reappraisal. The film may be a little low-key melancholy for a star-studded sci-fi picture, but it’s far from the limited appeal of the art house version of this child-farming territory in works like Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution. This is the tragic story of young people being disfigured & discarded by a menacing society who treats them like appliances, but in the midst of watching it the weight of that premise never overwhelms the simple love story at its core. If there’s anything Garland has proven himself to be particularly adept at, it’s achieving intimacy against the backdrop of far-reaching sci-fi concepts and Never Let Me Go is a great, distilled example of how effective that dynamic can be. He’s never quite turned that talent into boffo box office (not even with the popcorn action spectacle of Dredd), but Ex Machina & Annihilation both enjoyed a critical goodwill Never Let Me Go deserves as well. It’s doubtful that wide scale reappraisal is ever coming, since the movie’s previous lack of attention doesn’t make much sense either, but it’s still pure-Garland in its intimate sci-fi introspection, an auteurist voice we’re just starting to fully understand.

-Brandon Ledet

Mudbound (2017)

Dee Rees’s latest feature is a perfect example of why we should mourn the death of the mid-budget Hollywood film for adults. Made for just $10 million and barely turning a profit in its sale to Netflix, Mudbound tries its best to convey an Old Hollywood epic on an “online content” scale & budget and does an admirable job of it. If it were made a few decades ago it might have had the mid-range budget needed to fully capture the literary adaptation scope of its look at race relations in the post-WWII American South (it also would almost certainly have been directed by a white man instead of a black woman, so I guess not everything is changing for the worse). Instead, Rees has to be careful about where she spends money to hit with full force even if the grand scale spectacle can’t deliver what’s promised. Mudbound is the story of two families divided by racial barriers in 1940s Mississippi, but it’s also the story of a talented director not getting the full resources needed to properly do their job in the 2010s.

Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) & Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) star as two Southern men on opposite ends of the racial divide who struggle to readjust to American life after fighting in World War II. Both soldiers suffer PTSD from the war & flirt with alcoholism to cope, but only one has to deal with what it feels like to be a second class citizen after their brief period as a war heroes, thanks to the violent racial bias of 1940s Mississippi. Their respective stories are told in the larger context of two families, one white & one black, who share the same failing farmland (with matriarchs played by Carey Mulligan & Mary J. Blige). Mudbound explores the way post-slavery servitude continued in the Jim Crow South, the tyranny of racial privilege, the weight of war atrocities on the human psyche, the routine disappointments of an old-fashioned loveless marriage, and all kinds of other issues more befitting of a novel or a movie twice its length & budget. At the foundation of this mountain of historical dramas, though, is the horrific connection made between the two ex-soldiers who shared a common traumatic past but lived in two entirely different worlds because of their race. It’s a connection that can only end in misery, a tragic inevitability the film does not shy away from when it counts most.

Mudbound is at its weakest when it’s tasked to convey a sense of grand scale scope it can’t deliver on an Online Content budget. The voiceover narration and scenes of tank & airplane warfare are where the seams of the limited budget show most egregiously. Rees still delivers a powerful punch whenever she can afford to, though, making sure that the muddy & blood details of Mudbound’s smaller moments hit with full, unforgiving impact. Both families at the heart of this story are physically & metaphorically weighed down by the oppressive terrain of 1940s Mississippi farmland. Their lives are literally sinking into the endless mud that surrounds them, inextricably molded by the violence & history of their surroundings. This becomes especially powerful in intimate moments where a flash flood nearly drowns a white man digging up an anonymous slave’s grave or where the sounds of a black man getting kicked in the ribs overpower the soundtrack with the whaps of a baseball bat driving into a punching bag. When the impact of its imagery actually matches the scope of its budget, the movie is an undeniable powerhouse.

Mudbound should have been a $30-50 million adult drama with wide theatrical distribution and a genuine Oscars push. Instead, it’s a third of its appropriate production scale and heading straight to Netflix, where it’s in danger of being promptly forgotten. Considering the resources Dee Rees was afforded to tell this historically & culturally expansive story, she did an impressive job in delivering powerful details in the small, aggressively uncomfortable moments that make the movie work better than it should. She should have never been put into that position, though, and the movie would have been so better if she were afforded the freedom of full, appropriate funding.

-Brandon Ledet

Suffragette (2015)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Suffragette is a costume drama set in an early 20th Century London in which working class women frustrated with the women’s suffrage movement’s lack of progress gained through years of peaceful protest decide to stake their claim through civil disobedience. You can pretty much guess how the film goes from there, as there are very few stylistic embellishments provided to distinguish the film from the majority of its genre. Much of Suffragette is a dutiful catalog of the daily injustices a typical working-class woman might’ve suffered a century ago, including domestic abuse, the tyranny of the second shift, lack of rights in terms of child custody or property ownership, rampant sexual assault from male authority figures, more work for less pay, and a brutal class system that essentially amounted to lifelong indentured servitude for the less-than-fortunate. In response to these oppressive forces, lofty proclomations are announced for the audience’s benefits, phrases like “All my life I’ve been respectful, done what men told me. I know better now,” “If you want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable,” and “You’re a mother, Maude. You’re a wife. My wife. That’s what you’re meant to be.” “I’m not just that anymore.” The rest of the dialogue is mostly comprised of the film’s “suffragettes” greeting each other by name at various political rallies in long strings of “Edith.” “Maude.” “Violet.” Etc. There’s some genuine tension achieved through the gradual escalation of violence in the women’s various protests, but for the most part Suffragette‘s significance as entertainment depends heavily on how you feel about straightforward costume dramas as a genre. As for me, I thought it was pretty alright.

Perhaps the only real surprise Suffragette brings to the table is the way it also plays like a wartime drama. Filmed in drab earth tones & grimly scored, the film literally pits men & women together as opposite sides in a hard-fought war. Police stations function as war rooms, women train themselves (often through montage) to look tough by not crying & to fight hand-to-hand, violence escalates from smashed window displays of shops to homemade bombs, men detect & dissect weaknesses in their ranks, and so on. Suffragette seems very much aware of its war movie tendencies & draws a distinctly linear, A-B progression from how the idea that “It’s deeds, not words that will get us the vote” leads directly to the assertion that “We burn things because war is the only language men understand.” It’s, of course, a well-justified shift in protest tactics, since the men in charge were highly unlikely to budge from their stance that “Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands” without intense physical provocation. As far as war films go, Suffragette is light on both violence & battlefield strategic planning, but that genre context is still undeniable.

If Suffragette suffers one particular Achilles heel that hinders it from exceeding its genre limitations, it’s in the film’s pacing. As a mildly-fictionalized historical overview of a specific moment of tribulation in London’s past, the film feels the need to hit a wide range of plot points like it’s dutifully fulfilling a checklist. The always-welcome Carey Mulligan is perfectly engaging as the protagonist Maude, but the way the movie moves through her various victories & degradations rarely leaves enough room for her moments of crisis to properly land will full impact. Just like how Maude is sort of swept up by the suffragette movement around her without ever intending to become an activist, her run-ins with threatened imprisonment, police brutality, troubled relationships with family & employers, and subsequent public shaming all feel like natural, easy-to-come-by progressions instead of the moments of utter devastation that they could have been if they had allowed to properly breathe. In a lot of ways the sole moment the film allows the proper reverence for is an overblown Meryl Streep cameo in which the universally-loved actress is treated like royalty as she briskly passes through the film (even though she”s prominently featured on the poster). Not helping at all is a steady-as-she-goes score from Grand Buddapest Hotel‘s Alexandre Desplat. The score sounds fine, but it rarely escalates to match the action, so that the whole runtime just sort of runs together with very little tonal distinction.

I almost hate to say it, since it plays into the current cultural tidal shift in media preference, but Suffragette might have been better served as a television show or a one-off mini-series than as a feature film. The movie covered a little too much ground to establish any significantly intimate moments with its characters and as a result I really felt the back & forth war of the sexes would’ve played much better over the course of 20 hours instead of 2. As is, it’s a serviceable genre film that melds the finer aspects of the costume drama & the war film into a just-alright compromise of the two aesthetics. It’s pretty much destined to be mid-afternoon easy-viewing for a certain kind of target audience. And there are certainly much worse fates than that.

-Brandon ledet